How a Coca-Cola executive helped put 'Truth in Advertising'

  • Steve Bernas

    Steve Bernas

 
Posted1/16/2022 1:00 AM

The word caveat emptor first appeared in 1523. As everyone knows, it translates to "Let the buyer beware."

Think about that for a moment. One of the first things ever said by a human was a warning to look out for unscrupulous businesses.

 

Today, millions of consumers rely on the Better Business Bureau to identify trustworthy attorneys, car dealerships, plumbers, contractors and so on. This process is powered by qualified businesses that voluntarily pledge to uphold eight Standards of Trust, operate with integrity and submit to an annual review. Those that meet the BBB's high ethical standards receive BBB Accreditation and are permitted to display the influential BBB Seal, The Sign of a Better Business.

The BBB isn't a government agency or a consumer watchdog, but rather an independent, standards-based, nonprofit organization, founded by business leaders more than a century ago.

It all began in the late 1800s when the concept of advertising in newspapers and magazines started to roll out, and local business owners created advertising clubs to monitor what was being promoted in the marketplace. By 1909, this movement resulted in the formation of the Associated Advertising Clubs of America (known today as the American Advertising Federation/AAF), and their mission was to promote honest advertising.

In 1916 the Supreme Court ruled on a case where the U.S. government charged Forty Barrels (aka Coca-Cola) with false advertising, and for including a questionable ingredient in its product: Caffeine.

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Coke is still with us today, as is caffeine, so we all know how that part of the story ends.

However, a gentleman named Samuel Candler Dobbs (who three years later would become president and chairman of The Coca-Cola Company), attended those court proceedings, as one of the attorneys stated, "Why all advertising is exaggerated. Nobody really believes it." That moment had a profound impact on Dobbs, as he was the past president of the Associated Advertising Clubs of America, and he personally created the "Ten Commandments of Advertising."

Dobbs knew that if advertising was viewed as nothing more than lies, consumers wouldn't trust ads, and honest businesses would be drowned out in a marketplace full of deception and false promises.

After consulting with his peers, Dobbs discovered that he was not alone in fearing a bleak future for advertising, and business in general, so he started making public speeches on the importance of "Truth in Advertising."

Dobbs' efforts rallied local ad clubs throughout the country, and Vigilance Committees emerged to uphold fundamental advertising standards that identified, challenged and called out misleading ads. This was the official beginning of the BBB, taking place four years after the creation of the FBI and two years before the inception of the FTC.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Chicago advertising community was especially active in the vigilance movement, and in 1915 the Chicago group branded itself as the Better Advertising Bureau.

The following year, the National Vigilance Committee changed its name to the Better Business Bureau, to fully recognize all of the fundamental areas necessary for business success, not just advertising.

The Chicago Better Business Bureau opened its doors in 1926, supported by powerhouse businesses like Sears and the Chicago Tribune, and was led by Elmer Wiebolt, the CEO of Wieboldt's, a legendary Chicagoland retailer.

Today, in our 95th year of public service, I have the privilege of guiding the BBB of Chicago & Northern Illinois, as we continue to inform consumers of marketplace scams, and recognize trustworthy businesses that go the extra mile for their customers.

To learn more about the Better Business Bureau, visit BBB.org.

• Steve J. Bernas is President and CEO of the BBB of Chicago & Northern Illinois. He can be reached at sbernas@chicago.bbb.org

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